Euro festivals go pop!
Recession and weak currencies are threatening the continent's summer parties
The musician Neil Young will tonight entertain thousands of fans at the Isle of Wight festival before packing up his guitar and heading off to a sold-out Glastonbury, where he will headline along with Bruce Springsteen and a reformed Blur in a fortnight's time.
Despite the uncertainties of our summer weather, the credit crunch, and, in many cases, the same acts doing the rounds, Britain's music festival season is in full swing and rude health. Along with Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight, there will be T in the Park, Womad, V, Reading, Latitude and Bestival to name just a few of more than 100 planned between now and the end of September.
But across Europe it's a different story. In what was once a burgeoning market, particularly in eastern Europe, long starved of Western music during the Cold War, the festival circuit faces crisis. From Denmark's giant Roskilde – Europe's second biggest festival after Glastonbury – to Romania's B'esfest and Hungary's Sziget – promoters are struggling to sell tickets, despite such normally guaranteed draws as Coldplay, Oasis, Fat Boy Slim, the Prodigy and Kanye West.
The problem is the new global economics which makes a festival in eastern Europe too expensive for the people who live in those countries feeling the brunt of the recession – and costs are going up. As local currencies weaken, the fees of mainly Western performers become more difficult to meet; and promoters can no longer rely on Western visitors, for whom the ticket price is cheap.
"As we raise prices to catch up with festivals in western Europe, the Hungarian audience slowly melts," said Gabor Takacs, financial director of Sziget. Sziget, which means "island" and takes place on an island in the Danube river, has in recent years drawn French, German, Dutch and British visitors because it is affordable relative to their home events, he said.
But Western tourists are not travelling so much nowadays. Hungary's foreign visits are down by a fifth so far in 2009, and the tourism board expects a 5 per cent drop for the season. A six-day pass costs €150 euros (£127) – more affordable to a German than to a Hungarian, who earns an average of €475 a month in a country with 10 per cent unemployment.
"That [price] is obscene," said Dorina Keresztes, a 22-year-old student from Budapest. "The ticket price is only the beginning. You have to eat, drink, smoke. Lounging in a park drinking wine with friends is, you know, free."
However, the cost of staging a festival also rises if, like Hungary, your currency has weakened sharply. Mr Takacs said foreign headliners' fees – his biggest expense – grew by about 20 per cent this year.
In Bucharest, the B'esfest festival was scheduled to break even this year – a plan organisers have now revised. Profitability is now not expected before 2011. "This is only our third year," said spokesman Guido Janssens. "We wanted to raise prices a bit, but most of our audience is from Romania, so in this economy, we would have scared them off. Even now, we probably will not sell out."
Roskilde, Europe's largest festival by visitor days, is feeling the nordic chill, a spokesman, Esben Danielsen, said. "Sales in Denmark are going very well," he said. "But a third of our audience comes from other parts of northern Europe. These days in Iceland, which nearly went bankrupt, or in Sweden, where the krona weakened a lot, we don't do so well."
"People used to go to two, three or four a year," added Mikolaj Ziolkowski, a festival organiser in Poland. "Now they might choose just the biggest one with the best line-up."
To add to the woe, festivals are also losing sponsors, who could once be relied on to pump in cash in order to target a young audience. A mature festival typically receives less than 10 per cent of its budget from sponsors, relying instead on ticket sales and concessions. Sponsors put up nearer a quarter of the budget of many eastern European festivals, however.
Sziget has seen some corporate sponsors including Nokia and Magyar Telekom pull out.
But there is some good news. Among sponsors who are sticking with the festival market, brewers in general are keen: with the world's top four beer makers headquartered in Europe, the festival landscape is a patchwork of labels.
"It's a natural fit," said Keld Strudahl, the global sponsorship director of Carlsberg, whose brands back festivals from Glastonbury in Britain to Exit in Serbia. "A festival is the natural environment for drinking beer."
And weaker local currencies do have the benefit of translating into cheaper beer prices. "Last year, a pint of beer cost €2," Mr Takacs said. "This year, it will be €1.50."
Europe's summer festivals
Roskilde Roskilde, Denmark, 2-5 July
Tickets: £210 for camping, day tickets only for Sunday at gates.
Headliners: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Coldplay, Kanye West, Oasis. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Dr Muhammad Yunus will also speak.
Size: 175 bands; capacity 75,000.
Good to know: All profit to victims of climate change in south Asia.
Sziget Budapest, Hungary, 10-17 August
Tickets: £158 for camping, no one-day tickets available.
Headliners: Manic Street Preachers, Faith No More, Lily Allen.
Size: More than 200 international acts; capacity 80,000.
Good to know: Beer just £1.32 a pint.
Rock Werchter Werchter, Belgium, 2-5 July
Tickets: Only one-day tickets are left, priced from £66.
Headliners: The Prodigy, Oasis, Coldplay, the Killers.
Size: 60 acts; capacity 80,000.
Good to know: Public transport to festival is free.
Exit Novi Sad, Serbia, 9-12 July
Tickets: £86 for four days plus camping, one-day tickets at gates.
Headliners: Arctic Monkeys, Korn, the Prodigy, Moby.
Size: 100 acts; capacity 47,000.
Good to know: Began in 2000 as act of rebellion against Milosevic.
Pohoda Trencin, Slovakia, 16-18 July
Tickets: Three-day tickets cost £52, one-day tickets start at £43.
Headliners: Basement Jaxx, Razorlight, Travis, Klaxons.
Size: More than 160 acts; capacity 27,000.
Good to know: Waltz lessons available so everyone can dance when orchestras play their "set".
B'esfest Bucharest, Romania,
Tickets: Three-day tickets from £55, one-day tickets from £30.
Headliners: Santana, the Killers, Moby, Motorhead.
Size: 30-plus acts; capacity 30,000.
Good to know: No camping, but special hotel rates.
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